Insight: Billy Graham - when the greatest show on earth came to Glasgow

The saved and the sceptical remember answering the call of the world's most charismatic evangelist, Billy Graham, in 1955, writes Dani Garavelli

Billy Graham speaks to the multitudes at the Kelvin Hall.
Billy Graham speaks to the multitudes at the Kelvin Hall.

Though she was only nine years old, Ann Kyle remembers the exact moment she was “saved” by US evangelist Billy Graham. It was 1955 and he was in the middle of his six-week all-Scotland crusade. Listening rapt as his powerful voice filled Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, she felt a powerful urge to leave her seat and give herself to God.

“We had been to see him a few times,” says Kyle, whose parents belonged to an evangelical church. “I had watched my brother – who was five years older than me – go out to the front [to ask Jesus to be his Saviour] at a previous service. But that night I felt he was looking right into my heart. I suddenly understood what he was saying. I was nervous, I was crying. I looked at the man beside me and I thought to myself: if he goes forward, I will go forward.

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“But he didn’t move. We were almost at the end of Just As I Am [the hymn that was sung as people came forward]. I said to my mum: ‘Mum, I have got to go,’ and she said ‘On you go,’ and I did.”

Ann Kyle at Craighalbert Church, Cumbernauld. Picture: John Devlin
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More than 60 years on, Kyle, now 72 and still a committed Christian, still gets emotional when she thinks about that childhood epiphany. “I can’t say what my life would have been like [if I hadn’t gone to the service], I don’t know what type of person I would have been. All I know is that that night God used Billy Graham to bring me to himself and I am just so thankful it happened,” she says.

Kyle, from Cumbernauld, was one of 2.5 million people in the UK who heard Graham speak, at his services or through landline relays, during his six-week long campaign to reinvigorate Christianity in Scotland. To those who associate Scotland with a Presbyterian disdain for display or spectacle, it is odd now to look at the footage of crowds queuing up outside the Kelvin Hall – where a giant banner proclaimed “Let Glasgow Flourish by the Preaching of his Word and the Praising of his Name” – or to see row upon row of awe-struck faces as he exhorts his audience to renounce their sinful ways (though arguably all that fire and brimstone was right up our Calvinist street).

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But for a brief spell in the post-war years – when ordinary people were looking for a cause, and the rise of communism was being touted as the next great threat – Graham held audiences of all nationalities in his thrall. He was box-office gold from Canada to Korea.

Now Graham’s all-Scotland crusade, which saw him speak to shipyard workers and squaddies, and at Tynecastle Park in Edinburgh as well as at the Kelvin Hall, Ibrox and Hampden, is the subject of a new TVI Vision documentary, Six Weeks To Save The World, to be shown on BBC2 on Tuesday. The programme was commissioned in the run-up to Graham’s 100th birthday; unfortunately, the preacher died in February, nine months short of reaching his century, but the programme still shines a light on a significant moment in the country’s history.

Bill Lawrence

Interweaving interviews with people who saw him speak with academic commentary and footage from the time, the programme captures the frenzy of anticipation that greeted the arrival of the globally famous American. In one shot, men, women and children are seen singing Blessed Assurance, the hymn sung at the start of all his services, as they gather to greet him at St Enoch station. Stepping from the train, 6ft 2in tall in a long overcoat and a fedora, he has all the poise and urbanity of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

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That aura of glamour, that Hollywood glitz, was a crucial part of his appeal according to Bill Lawrence, who was 15 when he saw him at the Kelvin Hall. “I remember he was tall and wearing a beautifully cut jacket and brown slacks. We all wore black or blue back then and none of us was as sophisticated as him – he looked like a film star,” he tells me from his home in Taunton, Somerset.

In 1955, Lawrence, from Maryhill, was going through a religious phase. Inspired by an older boy – an officer in the Scouts – he had started going along to the Tabernacle Church. Although he was not one of the 26,457 people who responded to the “altar call” and signed a card agreeing to join the ministry, he could understand why people were mesmerised. “I think in 1955, we had begun to believe that there was a better life out there somewhere and that it was probably in the US,” he says. “The US had houses and cars and things we could only dream of – the word Utopia is too strong, but here was an intangible promise that things could be better – that’s what he represented.”

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Six Weeks To Save The World explores the drivers behind Graham’s visit, which took place against a backdrop of growing secularisation. His rise – from small-town preacher to international superstar – became unstoppable after newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst told his editors to splash his 1949 Los Angeles crusade across their front pages. For the next few years, Graham toured the US, commanding huge audiences wherever he went.

Documentary director, Sarah Howitt, near TVI Visions Glasgow offices. Picture: John Devlin

In 1954, Time magazine put him on the front cover and he began to extend his reach to the UK and the rest of Europe; from March to May 1954, he staged a crusade in London, involving regular events in the 12,000-seater Harringay Arena, and culminating with services at Wembley and White City stadiums.

Apart from Graham’s oratory – which could, by today’s standards, be regarded as a bit monotonous – the principal attraction was the choir, led by music director Cliff Barrows, and complemented by the beautiful bass-baritone voice of gospel singer George Beverly Shea.

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Among the hundreds of thousands who saw Shea at Harringay was the Rev Tom Allan, a popular young Church of Scotland minister who had made a name for himself on arrival at North Kelvinside parish in Maryhill in 1946. Possessed of an evangelising spirit, he organised teams of volunteers to visit every home in the parish with the result that the membership of his church rose from 487 to 611 within 12 months and to 1,200 by the end of his seven-year tenure.

By 1954, however, Allan – who used to stand on a box to preach in the streets – had moved on to become a field director with Tell Scotland, an outreach movement founded by Scotland’s Protestant denominations which believed that the growth of the churches needed to come from the bottom up.

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Not surprisingly, Allan’s conviction that a visit from a superstar preacher was the solution to secularisation was not universally shared. However, an invitation to Graham was issued, and a crusade HQ set up to get everything ready for the event. It was a massive operation: prayer letters had to be sent out to every church, tickets distributed, stewards and counsellors recruited, the choir organised and the Kelvin Hall transformed. And, boy, did the US organisers know how to put bums on seats. In the documentary, Betsy Shannon, who worked in the HQ, tells how, on hearing that all available tickets had been handed out, they were told to print some more, regardless of the space available.

“The Billy Graham organisation was brilliant at marketing. They came to set up camp months in advance,” says the documentary’s director and producer Sarah Howitt. “I’m sure the over-booking of tickets was a very clever marketing plan. It not only ensured they were full every night, but it also helped to breed hype.”

The crusade was not without its critics. There were those who worried the services were a form of emotional manipulation, particularly where children were concerned. Some of those concerns led organisers to stop the choir singing Just As I Am during the altar call, but it had little impact on the numbers coming forward.

“I do think there was an element of theatre,” says Lawrence. “It was the power of the music and the words and, yes, you could see people were getting carried away with it all. But then all church services involve performance. It’s the same with incense-swinging across a Russian orthodox church: that’s a wonderful sight to see.”

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In the main, though, Graham avoided serious controversy for most of his life. Unlike many TV evangelists, he was never accused of any sexual or financial impropriety. As far as politics were concerned, he was adept at walking the line. Asked to comment on communism, he would say it wasn’t his place to do so; yet he had a personal audience with every president from Harry S Truman to Barack Obama and was the first religious leader to lie in honour at the US Capitol. He was seen as an important political ambassador and clearly embraced the US strategy of seeing Europe as the frontline of the Cold War.

Later, of course, he was criticised over his ultra-conservative social beliefs, but at the time of the all-Scotland crusade those issues weren’t on the agenda.

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“I believe he did have some views about women and gay people which would be viewed as very outdated today,” says Howitt. “Although that’s not something that we found represented in the archive, the fundamentalism of his message is pretty clear. It’s fire and brimstone stuff.”

So what long-term influence did Graham’s visit have on Scotland? Did he succeed in putting Sin City – aka Glasgow – back on a righteous path? Well, in the weeks immediately following the crusade, church attendances did go up, but those increases trailed away within four weeks of the end of the campaign. Some commentators believe that, in hindsight, most of those who had attended the services were already church-goers or had simply gone along for a free night out.

Howitt, however, believes there may be a more subtle legacy. “Whilst church statistics are dwindling massively, Pentecostalism and Evangelism are on the up. Around 35 per cent of churchgoers in Scotland identify as evangelical now,” she says.

“Another interesting thing I didn’t know is how many Church of Scotland churches identify as evangelical. Although we conclude the church wasn’t changed in a big way, there is some anecdotal evidence that quite a lot of people decided to become ministers at that time and the kind of minister they became might have been influenced by seeing Graham in action.”

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On an individual level the impact of Graham’s visit was mixed. For the Rev Tom Allan, the crusade left a bitter aftertaste. When it didn’t have the galvanising effect he’d hoped for, he left Tell Scotland and went back to work in a parish: St George’s Tron in Glasgow city centre.

Though Bill Lawrence looks back on the experience fondly, its effect on him was ephemeral. He believes the religious fervour he felt at that time could just as easily have been aroused by football or music if that’s what those around him had been into. Indeed, the following year, when he left school to work at Harland and Wolff shipyard, shortly after the first of the apprentice strikes, he found his passion transferring to unionism and politics.

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“I think the man came over as genuine and it must have been lovely to hear the message and believe,” he says. “I am sure my life would have gone on a different path if I had done the same. Perhaps it would have been good for me, but I have no regrets.”

For Ann Kyle, however, the crusade was the starting point for a religious conviction that has been a comfort to her during periods of pain and loss.

Six years after Graham’s visit, her brother – the one who was “saved” shortly before her – was preparing to become a missionary in China when he developed cancer and died. “I adored my brother – it was a huge, huge thing in my life,” she says. “There have been other rocky times too. But I have never lost my faith. I can’t. It is as if God is holding me in the hollow of his hand.”

Six Weeks To Save The World, BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm